All eyes on Kitna

12-19-02, 7:25 a.m.

BY GEOF F HOBSON

A few more signs that Jon Kitna has emerged as the Bengals' unquestioned quarterback of the near future. Which is 2003.

Wide receiver Chad Johnson has invited himself to the Great Northwest to visit the Kitna clan to play catch and stay sharp. Right tackle Willie Anderson,, the man who has played the most games for the Bengals, says he is the man for next year, no doubt.

And on Wednesday, Kitna clarified remarks that were perceived as taking on the front office, but he didn't exactly back down, either.

Johnson is headed to Tacoma, Wash., at the urging of Anderson. It is Anderson who remembers the days of "Camp Lewanna," when Jeff Blake's wife hosted the Bengals' receivers at their Orlando, Fla. home during the offseason.

"Two weeks I'm going to go," Johnson said. "One in February and maybe one in March. He's the reason for my success. I don't want to say coaching, but he's helped me with so many of the little things."

The big things are why Kitna also appears to be the fans' choice as the club's MVP for 2002. In the first 562 votes on the bengals.com fan poll, Kitna has nearly 40 percent of the

vote against a field of Johnson (nearly 25 percent), running back Corey Dillon (nearly 24 percent), a co-selection of linebackers Brian Simmons and Takeo Spikes (6.5 percent) and kick returner Brandon Bennett (5 percent).

Anderson is leading a contingent of Bengals publicly supporting Kitna for '03, but the quarterback probably has drawn more attention for his pointed remarks that culminated in Sunday's post-game call for a change in attitude that begins at the top.

That came about a month after he wondered aloud if the team was more interested in the bottom line than winning.

But Kitna doesn't read the newspapers or listen to radio and TV about his team for obvious reasons, so he was genuinely surprised when people came up to him at the mall Monday and Tuesday and congratulated him for his remarks.

"I think there's a misconception that I'm trying to take on the front office here," Kitna said at his weekly Wednesday news conference. "That's not what I'm trying to do. My message on Sunday was that this whole team needs a new attitude. I don't really feel like we expect to win as a majority, on any given Sunday.

"I think that's a problem for us, because when you look around, we're pretty close talent-wise," Kitna said. "For us to go through the season we've gone through is a mental thing. I think an attitude change is predicated from the top on down. That's all I was trying to say. I'm not trying to take on anybody. I'm not up here backpedaling; I am just clarifying what I said."

The New Orleans media was also waiting for Kitna. His Sunday comments were the subject of the sixth question the conference call with him Wednesday and he didn't avoid the bottom line.

He was asked, "Was it frustration that led you to say the things that you said on Sunday?" and Kitna responded, "I think some of that was taken out of context.

"The thing that is holding this team back is an expectancy of winning or an attitude of winning. All I was saying is that it all works together and it starts from the top on down," Kitna said. "I don't think what I said was wrong. That was the truth. That is how it is in any business or organization. It has to be as a whole. It just can't t be the bottom line: the workers. I wasn't being negative. I was just saying that that is how it has to change. In order for it to change it needs to start from the top on down."

Kitna may have to start reading more than his customary "USA Today," sports page.

"I've received some peculiar reactions the last couple of days from people I know back home and from people I've never seen before in the mall," Kitna said. "They're all congratulating me on comments I made on Sunday. I still haven't read the papers, and I don't know where it's all coming from."

But in the next breath, he said he understands his role extends to the soapbox and doesn't stop just at the chalkboard.

"I think the quarterback has to be the voice of the team," Kitna said. "The quarterback can't ever back down from questions, and he has to be honest in his assessment of the team and most importantly, his assessment of himself. Guys need to know that he's going to put the best face forward for the team. There's a lot of responsibility that goes into being a quarterback."

The public is reacting as much to his numbers as his words. As Boomer Esiason said, as long as a quarterback is playing well, he can be outspoken.

And in the 10 games Kitna has started, the Bengals have been over 300 yards nine times and he has a passer rating of 87.6.

Which, by the way, is two percentage points behind Drew Bledsoe's 14-game run of 87.8, the quarterback they said would have changed it all around for the Bengals.

And he probably could have. But Bledsoe has 23 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Kitna has 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions without starting the first four games.

"One thing you can say about us is that we're exciting," Kitna said. "We've been in every game lately, and it usually comes down to the end of the game when we have a chance to win. We just haven't pulled it out."

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